Q&A: Why are police and climate activists clashing in German village near coal mine?
- What’s the story behind Lützerath?
- What is happening in Lützerath at the start of 2023?
- Does Lützerath have to be demolished, and does Germany really need the coal under the village, also in light of the energy crisis?
- What are the political implications of the standoff at Lützerath?
- Is Germany reverting to coal?
1. What’s the story behind Lützerath?
The (very) small village of Lützerath is located in the western German Rhenish mining district, one of the country’s three lignite mining regions. It borders the open-pit lignite mine Garzweiler and is demolished to make way for coal extraction. Coal mining and the related industry has shaped the landscape in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) for over 100 years. Some 50 villages or parts of villages have, so far, had to be given up to make room for the expanding opencast mines.
When deciding about how best to expand mining capacity, a debate going back many years – the so-called “Leitentscheidungen” (lead decisions) – the state government had agreed to plans which included the demolition of Lützerath. In a revised decision 2021, the hamlet consisting of about a dozen houses was still among those slated to make way for the mine. A deal between the federal government, the North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) government and energy company RWE in autumn last year means that the date for ending mining activities in the region will be pulled forward to 2030 (from 2038). While this meant several villages would be saved, Lützerath was still among those set to be torn down.
2. What is happening in Lützerath at the start of 2023?
All of Lützerath's original residents have left the village since resettlement began in 2006, with their homes now occupied by anti-coal activists who have set up camp there. Coal-producing energy company RWE has become the new owner of the land, as reported by Deutsche Welle. Farmer Eckhardt Heukamp who remained the only original resident of Lützerath even as his neighbours had gone, was forced to sell to RWE and move out in late 2022. In early January, over 1,000 activists were holding out in Lützerath’s empty homes and self-made treehouses to prevent the village’s demolition.
Police said they had largely finished vacating activists from Lützerath on 15 January, less than a week after it had started by surrounding the village. On 16 January, two activists who had been in a tunnel underneath the village, also left, which ended the clearing of Lützerath.
Throughout the days of evictions, police had also said protesters were throwing stones and fireworks – a video on Twitter seemed to show a Molotov cocktail being thrown. During a large demonstration in Lützerath on 14 January with more than 15,000 participants, a group of about 1,000 activists (size according to police) tried to reach the fenced-off village, but was stopped by police. Both the police and the activists later accused each other of using violence. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who inspired the Fridays for Future climate movement, also came to Lützerath for the protests.
3. Does Lützerath have to be demolished, and does Germany really need the coal under the village, also in light of the energy crisis?
There are conflicting views and reports as to whether Lützerath has to make way for the mine.
When presenting its decision to end coal mining in 2030, the state government of NRW claimed that independent evaluations had confirmed that preserving the village was not possible for several reasons. “If Lützerath were to be preserved, it would not be possible to achieve the production volume necessary to maintain supply security for the next eight years, nor would it be possible to guarantee the stability of the opencast mine and carry out the necessary recultivation,” the state government said.
RWE itself argues that the coal under Lützerath “is needed to make the best use of the lignite fleet during the energy crisis and therefore save gas for electricity generation in Germany. At the same time, sufficient volumes of materials are needed for the high-quality recultivation of former opencast mines.”
Activists are sceptical about such claims for several reasons: Former RWE CEO Rolf Martin Schmitz had said that it was impossible to keep the then-embattled Hambach Forest standing. The woodland that lies in the same mining region was the previous battle ground for anti-coal protests in the country. "Without the coal from Hambach, the operation will come to a standstill," Schmitz had told Frankfurter Rundschau. However, there was no standstill despite the cancelled clearing of the trees, so it is unclear whether there could be another solution for Lützerath as well.
In addition, Spiegel reported that the reports for the NRW government in 2022 had been prepared at extremely short notice, and that the question of whether the lignite under the village is needed for supply security over the next eight years is contested.
A 2021 report by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) had already suggested that mining in the region has to be curtailed for the country to do its part to meet the 1.5°C target, and that Lützerath could be thus be saved.
When the energy crisis, fuelled by Russia’s war against Ukraine, changed the energy policy landscape in 2022, debate about the role of coal and how much was needed was reignited. Economy minister Robert Habeck, as well as RWE, argue that last year's deal also guaranteed supply security and helped avert a gas shortage, because it made sure additional lignite capacity could be brought online.
A report by consultancy Aurora Energy Research claimed that, when only taking into account coal production for power generation, a scenario without the demolition of Lützerath would be possible. However, some lignite is used for refining (for example to make briquettes or as pulverised coal for industry), which could change the calculation. Spiegel reported that the data on how much was needed for refining is also contested.
Another report by Europe Beyond Coal from August 2022 (co-authored by DIW) stated that even with higher coal use in light of the gas shortage, enough coal reserves are available without demolishing Lützerath.
Overall, reports show that Lützerath does not have to be demolished, according Pao-Yu Oei, professor of Economics of Sustainable Energy Transition at Universität Flensburg and co-author of the Europe Beyond Coal report, who spoke to Tagesspiegel Background. He said that using the coal under the village seems “not a matter of compelling necessity, but rather a business consideration.” At current electricity prices it was possible to profitably convert the coal under Lützerath into electricity. “It can be assumed that RWE wants to excavate Lützerath because it is the most favourable economic option” he added.
4. What are the political implications of the standoff at Lützerath?
As police started to vacate protesters, Lützerath was catapulted into the public debate, with scientists (and celebrities) throwing their weight behind demands to halt action to vacate the village.
Lützerath is a delicate issue especially for the Green Party. Federal economy minister Robert Habeck and NRW state economy minister Mona Neubaur both presented the 2030 coal exit deal last year, which sealed the fate of the village. Neubaur at the time said: “Even if I would have wished it differently: We have to acknowledge that the reality is different and that this settlement has to be used.” Climate activists accused the politicians of having made a “dirty deal” with RWE, based on “questionable figures”, reported Deutsche Welle.
“This shows that the Green Party puts the interests of a coal company above that of climate protection,” said Fridays for Future activist Pauline Brünger during an online press conference on 12 January. “This is of course disastrous.”
For the governing Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia and in the federal government, “the situation is becoming a crucial test,” wrote Tagesspiegel Background in an editorial. “The climate movement has always been their natural political ally. However, they see themselves betrayed because the Greens are politically supporting the Lützerath agreement with RWE.” The party could not convince activists that Lützerath's demolition is acceptable even as the deal includes an end to mining in the Rhenish coal area by 2030.
Habeck said he has “great respect” for climate protesters, but sees fighting for the village as a questionable choice for expressing discontent. “I believe that climate protection and protest need symbols, but the abandoned Lützerath settlement is the wrong symbol in my view,” said the Green Party minister at a press conference. The minister told public broadcaster ZDF that it “hurt” to see the party’s usual supporters protest the government’s actions. “It worries me, as it does everyone in my party. But still we have to explain what was right,” he said – averting a gas shortage in the short term while setting a binding coal exit by 2030 for western Germany.
The issue could also influence the regional elections in Germany’s capital Berlin in February. “For the Berlin Greens, who would like to provide the governing mayor after the repeat election on 12 February, the eviction of Lützerath comes at an ill-timed moment; their image as a climate protection party had suffered enormously,” wrote Bert Schulz in tageszeitung (taz). In an open letter to ministers Habeck and Neubaur, Green Party members, many from Berlin and some high-ranking, say that the 2022 deal with RWE “threatens to break with the principles of our party, […] the Paris Climate Agreement, […] and the remaining trust of the climate justice movement.”
5. Is Germany reverting to coal?
Germany aims for climate neutrality 2045 and like other countries must quit coal much earlier to help limit global warming to the maximum temperature increase outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. The government coalition has said it aims for the country to exit coal “ideally” by 2030, instead of the 2038 phase-out date agreed so far. Tearing down villages to make room for more coal mining thus has become very controversial, especially among climate activists.
In order to substitute for gas capacity in the energy crisis, the government has temporarily revived coal-fired power stations that have already or soon were to be retired. While this has been difficult to accept for many climate activists and parts of the government, the economy ministry is arguing that coal can help ease energy shortages in 2022-2024 and should not increase overall emissions beyond the Europe-wide cap or endanger Germany’s climate targets. [This Q&A explains what Germany’s coal revival plans entail, how they will work practically, what problems may arise and what it means for the country’s coal exit.]
Wilfried Rickels of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) said this is also true for the decision to use the coal under Lützerath. "The direct CO2 emissions from the coal to be mined in Luetzerath have no impact on whether or not the 1.5 degree target is achieved," he said. "To put it simply: if the lignite from Lützerath is used to generate electricity, the corresponding CO2 emissions must be avoided elsewhere within the EU."